Have you ever wondered why you tend to drink tomato juice more often on a plane? Or, in the context of alcohol, do you typically like Cabernet Sauvignon, but prefer a smoother Merlot or Pinot Noir instead when you’re in the air? Believe it or not, there actually is a scientific reasoning behind why wines and other food and beverages taste different at high altitudes.

Wines actually diminish in acid, and more noticeably tannic and alcoholic when consumed at high elevations above 30,000 feet. The wines don’t physically or chemically change though, it is actually the human perception of food and beverage consumed that is altered. The ability to taste properly is reduced up to 30% when in a dry and pressurized cabin on a plane. There have even been research studies conducted mirroring the conditions of an airplane, that has found that some factors that affect the taste in wine could include humidity, atmospheric pressure, noise, reduced oxygen, etc. Due to a combination of these factors, research has discovered that white wines lose flavor, and red wines taste more astringent, bitter and tannic.

This phenomenon has been verified by many wine professionals as well as researchers. Bob Campbell, Master of Wine, wrote an article explaining that the pressurized cabin is very dry, which makes it harder for us to salivate when we encounter acidic or tannic wine. Therefore, red wines give the impression of being more astringent resource: http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2012/08/up-in-the-air. Instead, passenger tend to prefer very aromatic and pronounced white wines that are high in acid, as well as smooth, low tannin wines, with lower alcohol.

CNN also featured an article interviewing several sommeliers, including Doug Frost, Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, consultant for United Airlines source: www.cnn.com/2012/09/19/world/airlines-wine. What’s interesting is that Frost reveals that wines are sometimes selected months to a year in advance. Therefore, his airline selections must withstand the test of time, since they may not make it to the cabin of an airplane for a few months. At the same time, sommeliers must continue with their typical purchasing decisions of selecting wines based on popularity, region, price, etc. It’s quite complicated!

Yet another article from the Australian Financial Review interviewed Andy Sparrow, who purchases wines for British Airways’ first-class list source: www.afr.com/p/lifestyle/life_leisure/flying_ask_for_high_altitude_wine_mOF7MK5JHHYMolBZDgF6vN. From Sparrow’s experience, sparkling wine like Champagne and Cava were popular, possibly due to the carbon-dioxide in the carbonation. In addition, despite tannic wines being unpopular, Malbec remained the exception. The question was, then, why? Some speculation included the fact that Malbec tends to be grown at high altitudes, up to 1800 meters, which is around the same altitude that some planes are pressurized to. This might not be research-proven, but an interesting thought to ponder.

On a tangential note, regarding other food and beverage, the tendency is also that passengers on planes also prefer more flavorful foods, needing more salt, spices, as well as spicy-ness. In terms of non-alcohol beverages, ironically, tomato juice becomes much more popular in the air. Believe it or not, tomato juice sells about as much as beer, over 400,000 gallons annually source:www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/business/airlines-studying-the-science-of-better-in-flight-meals.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Now, when you board a plane and fall in love with the wines on your trip, think twice before buying multiple bottles/cases for the house.

Until next month, Cheers ~

Alice